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Christopher Zbrozek: The strange career of C.C. Little


Published September 26, 2006

Aside from the building that bears his name, former University President Clarence Cook Little hasn't left a very visible legacy on campus. His signature project, the creation of a University College that would teach a unified curriculum to all undergraduates for their first two years, never got off the ground. The automobile ban he instituted in an attempt to keep students from "necking" and driving to Prohibition-era speakeasies is a distant memory, to which anyone who has ever tried to park in student neighborhoods can attest.

It's perhaps just as well, though, that Little's time at the University was brief and the impression he made fleeting. On first glance, it's difficult to see Little's career as anything but a blemish on our collective past.

A Harvard-trained biologist and a cancer researcher by trade, Little's passion was eugenics, the scientific effort to improve the quality of the human gene pool. Nowadays, eugenics is invariably described as a "pseudo-science," the discipline terminally discredited through its associations with Nazi doctrines of racial superiority that called for the "unfit" to be killed. In Little's day, however, eugenics was a legitimate if somewhat controversial science, an irresistibly logical and beneficial application of Darwin's ideas about natural selection.

Little is indeed far from the only eugenicist associated with our fair University. Victor Vaughn, a former dean of the medical school whose name remains on a building on Catherine Street, gave a series of speeches on eugenics that ultimately spurred state legislation to sterilize those deemed "feeble-minded." Physicians at the University's hospital carried out a large proportion of Michigan's court-ordered involuntary sterilizations.

But of the eugenicists in the University's past, President Little undoubtedly maintained the highest profile. He was an officer in the American Eugenics Society, later becoming its president. He strongly supported contraception, in part because of his eugenic beliefs, and even went so far as to speak in favor of birth control from the pulpit, literally, when giving a guest sermon. He also aided Dr. John Kellogg - a prominent eugenicist who with his brother founded the cereal company - by serving as the president of a Race Betterment Conference held in Battle Creek in 1928.

Eugenics has fallen out of favor in part because of its all but inevitable links to other unsavory ideas. It's a small step from arguing that the human gene pool must be protected from deterioration to arguing that the stock of "better" races must be protected from the influx of the inferior blood of "weaker" ones. Believing strongly in the power of heredity to determine fate, eugenicists tended to see in poverty a confirmation that some individuals simply couldn't compete effectively; those selected for involuntary sterilization came overwhelmingly from the ranks of the disadvantaged and powerless.

Yet during the Roaring Twenties, in those heady days before the world had heard much of Hitler's ideas about the "master race," a good Christian businessman like Kellogg could, and did, safely sponsor a "Fitter Families Contest." Its winners were feted at the Race Betterment Conference that Little presided over, where Kellogg told them, "in this little town of ours the beginnings of a Better Race are being developed."

Little's own address at the conference reflected his longstanding concern about the effects of overpopulation - a subject he had even broached in his inaugural address after becoming president of the University. Speaking in Battle Creek in 1928, Little observed that due to advances in medicine, "variations in physiology that would have been eliminated by Nature a few decades ago will carefully be allowed and encouraged to survive." He fretted that by counteracting natural selection, there would be greater numbers of "the out-and-out public charge, the out-and-out defective, the anti-social, the non-social individual, who has to be confined and kept at public expense," until the costs became so great that society would simply have to "develop means to prevent the production of the unfit, and to spread information as to how this can be done to all intelligent people."

Some of Little's comments at the Race Betterment Conference would certainly cause a firestorm today; one can only imagine what would happen to University President Mary Sue Coleman if she repeated Little's speculation that perhaps "a number of the interesting criminal and near-criminal cases that we find ... represent the results of a not very strict standard of mental selection in our present methods of civilization."

And yet compared to some of the company he kept at the conference, Little comes across almost as soft and compassionate.